166. Editorial Note

On June 10, 1970, the National Security Council met from 9:36–11:24 a.m. to discuss the Middle East. In an unsigned and undated memorandum for President Nixon about issues for the meeting, Henry Kissinger, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, described the “implications of the Soviet presence in Egypt”:

“The character of the Soviet move in the UAR should not be underrated.

“You may hear the argument made (by Defense) that this move was precipitated by Israeli action or that it is purely defensive and does not threaten Israel. These arguments do not meet the main point: This is a unique turn of Soviet policy—never before have the Soviets put their own forces in combat jeopardy for the sake of a non-Communist government.

“It is argued that now the Soviets have rescued Nasser both of them may suddenly change character and be prepared to negotiate seriously. This seems doubtful. Having scored a psychological gain with apparent impunity, it has generally been the Soviet tactic first to consolidate their gains and then to press forward, testing the ground as they move.

“The problem, therefore, is not simply that the Soviet military presence may have, at a minimum, limited Israeli military options. The problem is that the USSR has established a new kind of foothold in the UAR and the U.S. has a strong interest in preventing its consolidation and expansion.

“Some Common Perceptions—A Critique

“You will hear argument over what the U.S. interest requires and how far the U.S. should go in trying to check the USSR. Some of this argument rests on assumptions that should be carefully examined.

  • “1. The Israeli view is that if Israel and the U.S. will only stand fast, the USSR and the Arabs will decide to negotiate. This means that the U.S. must give Israel all the equipment it needs and make no concessions to the USSR.

    “The problem with this is that the Israelis have not really offered the Arabs a negotiating position the Arabs could even consider accepting. So the Arabs feel they have no choice but to fight. Thus the U.S. is left backing Israel in a war of attrition that seems likely to lead only to another war—probably involving the USSR—without any negotiating escape to offer Moscow.

  • “2. The Defense Department view is that all we have to do is to get the Israelis off the Suez Canal to begin the process of reaching a settlement and that will prevent further erosion of U.S. influence. Their argument is that the U.S. has no interest in the Mid-East great enough [Page 508] to warrant a nuclear showdown with the USSR. The U.S. is militarily over-extended and has every interest in avoiding involvement in the Mid-East. Besides, the Arab-Israeli problem is not susceptible of military solution.

    “The problems with this view are that: (a) If the U.S. shows that it does not have enough interest in the Mid-East to warrant a showdown, then the USSR will never back off. (b) If Israel does not believe the U.S. will defend its existence against the USSR, Israel will have no incentive whatsoever to agree to a settlement based on withdrawal from present lines.

  • “3. It is also commonly said that the Soviets are acting in the UAR purely in a defensive capacity and that the U.S., therefore, need not be concerned because the Soviets will not threaten Israel.

    “Yet it would be logical for the USSR to extend its influence as far as possible. The near term Soviet objective in the Middle East is to destroy Western influence. The main enemy is not Israel but the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Therefore, it must be assumed that the USSR will do all it can to that end—over and above defending their client.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1155, Harold Saunders Files, US Peace Initiative for Mid-East, 6/10–7/23/70)

At the NSC meeting on June 10, President Nixon opened by asking Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms for a briefing on the Middle East:

“Mr. Helms began by noting that the new Soviet presence required careful evaluation. Israel retained military superiority, but the elements of the Soviet presence are under careful study.

“The Soviets have 4–5 regiments of SA–3 missiles in the UAR and 3–5 squadrons of Soviet-piloted MIG 21 aircraft.

“The President interjected: ‘Are you stating that as a fact? Are we now convinced?’

“Mr. Helms replied that we feel no doubt that these forces are there. The debate within the intelligence community is over how they have been used. We have intelligence on the forces themselves [2 lines of source text not declassified] On the basis of intelligence from all these sources, the presence of the missiles and the pilots is unquestioned. The big issue is how the Soviets intend to use them.

“The President asked what the number of Russians in Egypt other than diplomats is. Mr. Helms replied that it is in the neighborhood of 10,000. It has doubled in the last six months.

“Mr. Helms continued, saying that the Soviet forces are located mainly in the Nile valley. The Israelis have confined their recent attack to the area ajacent to the Suez Canal. The question now is whether the Soviets will refrain from moving their missiles and pilots into that area [Page 509] near the Canal and whether the Israelis will refrain from challenging the Soviet pilots.

“Intelligence confirms 13 sites of SA–3 missiles. These are manned by 2600–3700 Soviet personnel. There are probably 6–7 other sites under construction. These are located in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, west of Cairo, south of Cairo in connection with a Soviet-manned airfield and at Aswan. The Israelis have unconfirmed reports of SA–3 sites—but not equipment—along the Canal.

“This equipment arrived in March and April. Three squadrons of Soviet-piloted aircraft are flying from three bases—15 aircraft in each squadron with about 90 pilots by present count. The pilots arrived in February and March. [2 lines of source text not declassified]

“As a rule, the Soviets stay clear of the Suez Canal. The one major exception [4 lines of source text not declassified]

“Israel has publicly stated that it would avoid the Nile valley but would maintain supremacy over the Canal. Israel has said it would bomb anything along the Canal. They have been bombing heavily bunkers they maintain are being built to house equipment related to the SA–3 missile. U.S. intelligence analysts are inclined to think that these sites are for the SA–2 missile, but they have been so heavily bombed that we may never know what they were intended for.

“On the ground, the Israelis only have some 5–700 men along the Bar Lev line on their side of the Canal. There are some 93,000 Egyptians on the other side of the Canal altogether. Dayan says that the main Israeli objective is to keep these Egyptians from massing for a cross-Canal attack.

“As far as the Arab-Israeli military balance is concerned, the UAR has some 210–250 aircraft in 20 squadrons. But it does not have enough qualified pilots. Israel has 81 supersonic aircraft and 121 subsonic aircraft and 500 jet pilots. Israel’s superiority rests on pilot quality. We assume that Israeli pilots are the equal of ours. Israel keeps 85% of its aircraft flying, while the Egyptians keep only about 75% in the air. The Israelis are able to mount 5 sorties per aircraft per day, while the Arabs can only manage 2. Israeli aircraft have superior performance characteristics. The addition of some Soviet pilots will improve the UAR ability to intercept Israeli attackers if the Soviets engage. Soviet pilots are probably more capable than the Egyptian pilots. But they lack combat experience.

“The new factor in the situation is the potential for attrition of Israeli aircraft in a prolonged contest with the Soviets. They could exhaust the Israelis in both aircraft and pilots. Israel could at some point come to consider losses intolerable. The present Israeli losses are somewhat less than the annual traffic toll. In terms of economic or demography Israel could stand such levels of losses. But Israel takes losses [Page 510] hard and any level of losses creates a psychological factor on which the Israeli level of tolerance is relatively low.

“This is why Israeli strategy is based on the pre-emptive strike to keep the enemy from bringing its numbers to bear against Israel. This strategy now seems unworkable. It has for some time because of the dispersal of Arab aircraft and the hardening of protective hangars on Arab airfields. Now there is the additional factor that the presence of Soviet pilots could bring on a U.S.-Soviet clash. With the strategy of pre-emption perhaps lost to Israel, the Israelis have more reason than ever to try to control the area along the Suez Canal. The Israelis believe that unless they sustain their present level of attacks or increase it, the Arabs will be so emboldened as to step up the war of attrition.

“Israel’s ability to maintain air superiority seems to depend on what the Soviets do. The indicators of Soviet intention are the fact that one Soviet pilot on May 14 did pursue an Israeli aircraft and the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] which indicate the possibility that the Soviets are moving SA–3 missile sites up to the Canal. On the other hand, since May 14, there has been no identified incidents of Soviet pilot pursuit. If the Soviet pilots are ordered to keep their present pattern this situation could go on for some time. If they move up to the Canal, Israel could be quickly worn down. Even at that, the impact of such a Soviet move might be more important psychologically than militarily.

“At the least, the Soviet presence has probably already emboldened the Arabs. At most, a situation has been created in which the balance could be altered to Israel’s disadvantage. Again, the real effect on the balance will depend on what the Soviets decide to do.

“U.S. assistance to date is as follows: 40 Phantoms have been delivered and 3 have been lost; 10 remain to be delivered. Eighty-eight Skyhawks have been delivered with 12 remaining.”

After a brief discussion of [other subjects] Nixon returned to the Soviet Union:

“The President said that he wanted to be sure he understood one point: Is it true that, since World War II, the Soviets have not lost any men in non-Communist countries in combat situations? Mr. Helms replied that Soviet officers have been lost in Egypt in the last year. They may also have lost a few in Korea which we never identified—some Soviet pilots.

“The President said this fact underscored for him the enormous significance of this recent Soviet step. It involves Soviet personnel in becoming casualties in a combat situation outside a Communist country. To them, this poses a very serious problem. [2 lines of source text not declassified]

[Page 511]

“Mr. Helms replied that [2 lines of source text not declassified]. The judgment which he had described was not just a casual one.

“The President asked what the Soviets say about the fact that they have generally had a free ride for the last 25 years, using proxies to do their work for them.

“Secretary Rogers said the Soviets do not talk about numbers of combat personnel. They do not deny or admit that they have combat personnel or pilots in the UAR. They say that the reason the Soviets are training Egyptian forces is that the Israeli deep penetration raids in January made this necessary. Whatever the Soviets are doing, the Soviets say has a purely defensive role. They say that they have to back up Nasser. The Secretary concluded that, as long as the deep penetration raids do not continue, the present posture will probably be maintained.

“Secretary Rogers continued that this is a good time to try to get negotiations started. The parties have never really negotiated with each other. This is a good time. Israel is concerned about its future. Nasser is concerned about the Soviet presence. The Soviets are possibly willing to help with a political settlement, though maybe this possibility is remote. But for the first time the Soviets seem to be talking in more serious terms.

“The Secretary proposed that the U.S. use the next three months to try to get negotiations started. He felt that we should continue to sell planes to Israel at about the same rate as in the recent past. At the same time we should make a major effort in New York under Ambassador Jarring to get negotiations started. ‘We think there is a good chance Israel will go along now.’ The Secretary said his plan is to have a low-key announcement in about a week. He thought there was a possibility to get negotiations started. Until we do, there is no possibility of a settlement. He repeated that he felt the Israelis and the Soviets are interested.

“The President turned to Dr. Kissinger to brief on the issues involved.

“Dr. Kissinger said he had intended to draw together some of the issues which had been raised in the Special Review Group meetings on this subject, but he would like to go back a half a step to start with.

“The immediate issue is aircraft for Israel. The State Department view has been as Secretary Rogers outlined it—that we should continue some shipments of aircraft to Israel while we launch a diplomatic initiative. The Defense Department view has been that we should provide no planes now because deliveries would inflame the Arab world.

“Dr. Kissinger continued that discussion of some of the issues underlies any decision we may make on aircraft. For instance, although the facts of Soviet intervention in the UAR are pretty agreed, there are [Page 512] different views of Soviet purpose and of the significance of the Soviet move:

  • “—One view is that the Soviet move is entirely defensive, that the Soviets had no choice but to make this move in response to Israel’s deep penetration raids and that the significance of the move is therefore limited.
  • “—Another view is that, whatever Soviet intentions are, we are confronted with certain results. The Soviet move does free the UAR to be more belligerent. Even if there is an Arab-Israeli settlement, if the Soviet forces remain in Egypt, the UAR will feel stronger in whatever adventures it decides to pursue. Britain did not want an empire; it simply acquired one in the course of seeking coaling stations on the commercial route to the Far East. The practical consequence of a Soviet presence in the UAR is that it is a major geopolitical fact with which we have to deal. The consequences cannot be judged by Soviet intent.

“Secretary Rogers asked what difference it makes which view one takes. Dr. Kissinger replied that the view one takes makes some difference on whether the USSR is confronted now or not. The President said there was a question of whether the USSR should be confronted on a broader front. Dr. Kissinger pointed out that even if the Arab-Israeli dispute is settled, that still leaves a problem for the U.S. in that the Soviet Union can work behind the radical Arabs in further eroding U.S. influence in the area.

“The President asked whether it is in the Soviet interest to see an Arab-Israeli settlement. The USSR may not want to see Israel ‘go down the tube.’ It may well be that the Soviets have an interest in having Israel there as a ‘burr under the U.S. saddle.’ The President said he questioned whether the Soviets have an interest in a real settlement; he could understand their interest in a truce or a cooling of the situation but had more question about a full settlement. He felt that Dr. Kissinger’s point is relevant and that it is not right for the US to look at what the Soviets are doing in the UAR as an isolated problem.

“Secretary Rogers said he thought everyone could agree to that.

“Mr. Packard noted one Soviet interest that had not been mentioned: The Soviets want the Suez Canal open.”

After discussion of other Middle East issues, Kissinger raised additional points about the Soviet Union. According to minutes of the meeting:

“Dr. Kissinger returned to the thread of his briefing, noting that the third element that must be dealt with in any strategy is the USSR. The normal pattern of Soviet activity is to begin with a relatively modest step and then to inch forward testing the ground as they go.

“The President interjected by asking how the Soviets proceeded in Cuba. The replies were vague, and Dr. Kissinger continued briefing.

[Page 513]

“Dr. Kissinger said that the problem with the USSR is to convince them that their present course has incalculable risks. But at the same time we do not want to engage Soviet prestige and leave the Soviets no escape. The choice for the U.S. is not whether to try for a settlement or to confront the USSR. The choice is how to do both in order to achieve a settlement.”

After a brief discussion of other factors affecting a Middle Eastern peace settlement, discussion returned to the Soviet position:

“The President said he still came back to a basic point that militates against a settlement: What is in it for the Soviets? The present situation is costing them some money. They may be concerned about a possible confrontation with the U.S. But if they look at that proposition coldly, they know as well as we know around the NSC table that the likelihood of U.S. action directly against them is ‘in doubt.’ It did not use to be in doubt. That was what the Lebanon invasion of 1958 was about.

“Again looking at the Soviets: they have made noises that they would like to see a settlement. They have a muscle-bound bureaucracy and have trouble seeing things in gradations. It may be that as far as the Soviets are concerned our job is to get them to play a role in imposing a settlement. The ingredient that is missing and has to be supplied in some way is the incentive to them to play that role.

“Secretary Rogers noted that the Soviets are concerned about the Chinese and about the Fedayeen. Soviet officials often allude to those problems. Nasser is concerned about what has happened in Jordan and that he may be in some danger.

“Ambassador Yost said that the Soviets do not call the tune in Cairo. If a settlement in Arab interests emerges, he did not believe that the Soviets could prevent it.

“Mr. Sisco said that, while he agreed about the Fedayeen and the Chinese, he put greater weight on what the Soviets think of American will. The real leverage on the USSR is fear of a confrontation with the U.S. We ought to be looking at the 6th Fleet to see whether it is projecting American power to the maximum extent. His conclusion, he said, is that the Soviets feel now that they can broaden the conflict. We are essentially up against a Soviet political strategy, but at the end of the line they must feel that they could run into a confrontation with the U.S.

“Mr. Richardson indicated his agreement. He felt that we need to find a way to use the only lever that we really have—the Soviet fear of confrontation.

“Mr. Packard said that this is a matter of timing. He said we have to move ahead soon. We should avoid moving planes. He liked the idea of having a pool of aircraft perhaps in Texas as a reserve for Israel which would not be moved to Israel unless the situation required.

[Page 514]

“The President concluded the meeting by saying that he would look at all of this.”

(National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–109, NSC Minutes, Originals, 1970)